NEWCASTLE, Okla. – Fear of losing her remaining vision once held Sonya Cochran back more than deaf-blindness, a condition many associate with noted American author, lecturer and humanitarian Hellen Keller.
Today Cochran, from Newcastle, is beginning a job search while serving as 2017 spokesperson for Deaf-Blind Awareness Week in Oklahoma.
Governor Mary Fallin issued a proclamation for the event, which will be celebrated June 25 through July 01, in conjunction with Keller’s birthday.
Cochran has Usher Syndrome type II. The condition combines hearing loss with progressive vision loss due to retinitis pigmentosa, which leads to retinal deterioration and severe tunnel vision.
Originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, she worked as a manager and co-owner in several family businesses. She married in 1992 and lived in Arkansas and Texas while rearing her son and daughter, before re-joining her parents in Oklahoma in 2001. Eventually, Cochran bought land and built a house in Newcastle within walking distance of her children’s school.
For five years, she processed and mailed medications all over the world for Newcastle Drugs. Later, she became self-employed and worked from home as a marketer for wellness products, but she resigned due an increase in hearing loss.
“I had very low confidence and also a fear of losing my sight and becoming blind,” Cochran explained. “How am I going to be able to find transportation, do things to my house, cook, take care of the bills and work – (and handle) all the independent living skills?”
Cochran’s brother-in-law Allen Finley and her daughter Tamerah Cochran encouraged her to contact Visual Services’ Deaf-Blind Services, a training and employment program for people with combined vision and hearing loss. The program is part of the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services.
Deaf-Blind Specialist Joan Blake, now retired, introduced Cochran to Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor Stephanie Butler and Jerri Cooper, who is a deaf-blind specialist, rehabilitation teacher and also deaf-blind herself.
Cochran worked with her team to select cutting-edge technology and training to bridge communication gaps and help her return to work and improve self-sufficiency.
Training was one of the keys for Cochran who traveled to the Helen Keller National Center in Sands Point, New York at Visual Services’ expense in June 2016. HKNC is the only comprehensive national program in the U.S. exclusively for youth and adults who are deaf-blind.
“I’ve learned to do both low vision plus blind (blindfolded travel) methods by going to New York (City) crossing streets from 34th Street all the way up to 59th Street, which is where the Central Park was, and then … all the way back to the Penn Square Station. My confidence has grown so I know I can do it even if I lose my eyesight completely.”
“Training also increased Sonya’s knowledge of her disability, job searching techniques and ability to advocate for herself,” Stephanie Butler explained. “She had training in job interests such as retail, food preparation and clerical work, which allowed her to determine which field best suited her, what accommodations (for her disability) are needed and how to explain to employers why they are necessary.
“Sonya has added this work experience to her resume to increase her employability,” Jeri Cooper added.
VS’ Deaf-Blind Services also purchased hearing aids and a Phonak ComPilot, a Bluetooth™ streaming and remote control accessory that Cochran wears around her neck for convenience. The ComPilot connects to her hearing aids, telephone system or TV, and includes an outdoor setting and a microphone to more clearly hear conversations with others.
Cochran’s computer now includes Zoomtext, a magnification and text reading program for low-vision users.
Cooper recommended a portable Ruby video magnifier and closed circuit television system. The CCTV connects a video camera with a zoom lens and monitor screen to enlarge images for reading text and detail work.
Cochran acquired an iPhone and iPad with access to unique applications for users with visual disabilities through the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program, known as iCanConnect. The program is managed by Cooper in Oklahoma.
“I am very grateful to Jeri Cooper, Stephanie Butler, DRS, the state of Oklahoma and Helen Keller Training Center for helping me get the training, equipment and job search help to adjust to my vision and hearing loss, and be successful,” Cochran said.
Cochran and Frank Washington, a job coach VS contracted with at A Step Ahead Counseling, LLC, are now looking for jobs that match her experience and interests.
“It was just outstanding seeing the difference in Sonya now, as opposed to many years ago when she wasn’t quite ready to take that step,” Cooper said. “It’s really rewarding now to see that she’s totally blossomed out, and she can be a great inspiration to others.”
For more information about Deaf-Blind Services, phone 918-551-4900 or visit http://www.okdrs.gov/independence/deaf-blind.
An estimated one million adults have combined vision and hearing loss in the United States, according to population estimates by the Helen Keller National Center. HKNC also references a Community Research Institute study that puts that number as high as 2.4 million.
While specific employment numbers are not available for deaf-blind workers, U.S. Census data indicates that 24.5 percent of Oklahomans, ages 16 and older with all types of disabilities are employed, compared to 66.9% of individuals in the same age range without disabilities.
Last year, DRS served 83,406 Oklahomans with disabilities with career preparation, employment, residential and outreach education, independent living programs and the determination of medical eligibility for disability benefits.
DRS helps job seekers with disabilities face barriers to employment, such as inaccessible worksites, lack of transportation or specialized equipment, and employers’ reluctance. The agency also assists employers in finding qualified workers with disabilities and provides career counseling, training, job placement and other services to build skills and qualifications needed in the workforce.